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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I'm not a Gus Van Sant fan, but I have to admit "Paranoid Park" got
under my skin: it's a fascinating film. His adaptation of the novel by
Blake Nelson (both GVS and Nelson are from Oregon and their oeuvre is
centered around American Teenland) allows GVS to do a sort of
small-scale contemporary American version of "Crime and Punishment". As
in Dostoyevsky, GVS uses a gruesome killing (deliberate in Dostoyevsky,
accidental here) as a motif to expose the nature and process of guilt,
(self-) punishment, youth, conventions, repressed emotions, social and
moral malaise in his society.
Gus Van Aschenba... uh, I mean Gus Van Sant's fascination with teen boys is taken to the hilt in "Paranoid Park", as he follows his unfathomable Tadzio-Raskolnikov: the introspective, sexually ambiguous and emotionally muted skateboarder named Alex, played by Gabe Nevins, whose blank Botticelli face and blasé demeanor hide his character's soul-searching turmoil. The swooning, voyeuristic camera follows Alex so closely and so insistently that it seems it's trying to penetrate and discover, under those expressionless features and monotone voice, the complex feelings that Alex is struggling to understand and keep under control, especially after tragedy strikes when he kills a security guard in a terrible railway accident.
The "thriller" plot is cleverly built, but of lesser importance; it's Alex's existential/moral crisis and GVS's concern with "America's misfit kids" that really matter in "Paranoid Park". The serpentine camera dances around the skateboarders in slow motion, à la Wong Kar-Wai, observing their beautiful air arabesques and their gravity-challenging leaps that seem to reach for cleaner oxygen, above ground-stuck conformity and ordinariness. The adrenaline-addicted skateboarders of Paranoid Park live in a sort of adolescent purgatory, where time also seems to loop; "growing-up" (which includes the possibility of going to war) is postponed, and it's no wonder we see some "over-aged" teens there, like the older guy who takes Alex to the ill-fated freight train ride.
But "Paranoid Park" is more than a sympathetic portrait of a certain American youth (the kind that we don't often see in American movies). It's also a free-spirited aesthetic exploration, visually (contrasting film textures; focus/out-of-focus shots; marked impressionistic style; the trademark but still hypnotizing slow-motion shots of cameraman's Christopher Doyle); rhythmically (witty editing, and we can thank all our gods it's only 85 minutes long), and aurally (GVS uses a VERY eclectic soundtrack -- classical music, folk, rock, hip hop, French concrete music and a lot of Nino Rota -- like a teen zapping his iPod). I was especially puzzled at GVS's extensive use of Rota's score for Fellini's "Juliet of the Spirits". At first, sight and sound didn't seem to match at all; but then it's true that both Alex and Giulietta are closed-in, dissatisfied, emotionally repressed misfits trying to cope with their loneliness and malaise by learning to confront and accept their personal ghosts -- though, by the end of their journey, we may fear for their mental sanity.
Another fascinating aspect of "Paranoid Park" is that GVS shows mature fair-play about his traumatic failure with the "Psycho" remake (also photographed by Doyle). Most obviously with two scenes that directly revisit "Psycho": the car-driving scene in rainy weather with non-stop music on the soundtrack -- a sign of the upcoming ominous events; and the magnificent shower scene, this time in extreme close- up and extreme slow-motion, with running water flowing through Alex's long hair forming a translucent, medusa-like image of mesmerizing beauty, electrified by a crescendo effect of (apparently) rattling waterdrop sounds mixed with loud bird chirps (remember bird sounds also inspired the legendary Bernard Herrmann's staccato shower murder theme in "Psycho", as Norman Bates was a bird taxidermist). There's even the same shot of Alex slowly gliding down against the wall in the shower, as Marion Crane in Hitchcock's classic.
Both in "Psycho" and in "Paranoid Park", the shower scenes are a body/soul-cleansing ritual, the climax of each film and a turning point for the protagonists: for Marion Crane it's unexpected death (punishment); for Alex it's the decision to keep silent about his crime (self-punishment). As in "Psycho", there is the observation of guilt underneath "innocent" appearance (Alex, Marion Crane and Norman Bates look perfectly innocent), and repressed sexuality (both Alex and Norman are sexually numb though aware they're attractive to women). And as in "Psycho", there's the unfailing intuition of a detective, here played by Daniel Liu, who looks like an Asian Martin Balsam, and whose eyes are so different one from the other -- one is lidless, accusatory, fixed; the other is heavy-lidded, world-weary, understanding --that when he stares at Alex he seems to figure out both sides of the boy.
The main weakness in the film is GVS's portrayal of females. It's obvious Alex couldn't care less about his hysterical cheer-leading girlfriend determined to get rid of her virginity, but did she have to be portrayed as an insufferable bore? And did Lauren McKinney, who plays the girl secretly in love with Alex, have to be so unflatteringly photographed? (compare her cruel close-ups with the slow-motion parade of gorgeous skateboarding ephebes at the school). And need I say Alex's mother (as in "Psycho") is only seen out of focus, far in the distance or from behind? (this time around we DO get to see the face and body of a father in a GVS film -- and, man, it's a scary vision).
Even if "Paranoid Park" isn't your cup of tea, one has to admit GVS is a rarity among established contemporary American filmmakers: he has, through the years, been brave enough to stick to his thematic obsessions (young male beauty, the loneliness of non-conformism, the failure of the American dream and the traditional family, the complexity that lies under the apparent numbness and superficiality of American teens), and put them in films that -- while certainly not for all tastes -- get more fascinating as they get more personal and self-revelatory by refusing to be "big".
"Paranoid Park" is about what is going on in the head of a teenage boy
after he has experienced a shattering trauma. He is dislocated and
remote and 'not all there', or is he just in shock? It really is up to
the audience to decide for themselves, because in an experimental movie
like this one, no easy answers are forthcoming.
In general I quite like Gus Van Sant's films, but be aware that you need to judge each of his films on their own merits. This is hardly the Gus Van Sant of Hollywoodian mild indie fare like "To Die For", "Psycho", "Good Will Hunting" or "Finding Forrester". Stylistically "Paranoid Park" is a close cousin to his later "Elephant". Low key, quiet, internalised, sometimes naturalistic, but often dreamy, and with a chronologically fractured time line. None of the actors seemed to be acting at all. Brilliant casting or brilliant acting? I am unsure.
Not for everybody.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
One of my biggest fears (or phobias) has always been getting caught for
something I didn't do. Then there might be 'wrong time, wrong place.'
Something not really bad suddenly snowballs. You use a swear word and
your dad starts shouting and he crashes the car and there's a big pile
up and it's all your fault. Or a kind word gets taken the wrong way and
suddenly everyone in the bar is throwing punches. Basically good guys
don't always go to heaven, that's my worry.
Paranoid Park isn't a real park. Or rather it's a real skateboard park but the name is just made up by the kids there. It's the place where all the top skaters go. Alex is a good kid from the nice side of town. He skates a lot but doesn't know if he's really ready for Paranoid Park. That place is pretty intense. Alex borrows his mother's car but parks it on the opposite side of the river if he goes there. So it won't get damaged.
A policeman at the school is asking questions. A security guard has been found dead near the rail tracks. Maybe murder. The tracks run close to Paranoid Park. Did anyone see anything? There are so many remarkable things about this unusual movie. Let's starts with the acting and characterisation. Here Director Gus Van Sant gives us characters that actors of many years' experience would be proud of. The kids in the movie don't have that - in fact most of them were recruited through MySpace. What we get though is a sense of their interior lives.
All the kids - Alex, his girlfriend Jennifer, most of their friends, come from a world where being a teenager is the reality. That means your hobbies and interests are the day-to-day world, goals for the future figure somewhere, and adults are pretty peripheral. Adults exist and perform certain functions but are not that interesting. The adults in the film (like those in Rebel Without a Cause) are fairly one-dimensional. But unlike most teen-pics, the children here do not seem angry, overly rebellious, or addicted to sex and drugs and rock and roll. Nor are they stupid. They are convincingly normal teenagers, very real. They could be your children.
The 'world' of skateboarding or rather Alex's mental narrative - is skilfully woven from the start. Not by boring the pants off us with long displays of skate board skill, but rather by associational editing, soundscapes and inventive use of cameras and formats. We see and feel how this hobby, through the skaters' eyes, produces a high akin to drugs or music. By making Alex's perspective so real for us, his sparse lines throw us back on what he is thinking. We are closer to him than the adults in his world. More like a sibling. More like someone who knows and believes you when you are so honest and frank, and also stands next to you when you have your fingers crossed behind your back . . .
Our soundscapes are made up of gentle, electronic, ambient sounds. A dreamy woman's voice whispers something in French. Cinematography is by Christopher Doyle (In the Mood for Love). The sun through blades of grass near the shore and we skip between Super 8 and 35mm, hand-held cameras and stable frames. The ethereal and unreal becomes the bedrock of our world. Just as the basis of puberty is change. Adults can be sidelined in a way that just stops short of being contrived. When Alex is talking to his mother or father, they stay out of focus or out of frame for quite a long time into the conversation.
When the mystery is revealed it happens with operatic intensity, yet our emotion is held back until Alex can deal with it in his own way. The way the film evokes a moist eye from probably everyone in the theatre and suddenly stops will upset those wanting a more conventional structure. But it will still manage to satisfy far more people than might otherwise venture into such an art-based film.
As one of the characters says to Alex, "No-one's ever really ready for Paranoid Park."
I've been a fan of Van Sant's films for a while now. I guess I could
boil this interest down to the college influence. Art, in any form (but
especially cinema), seems to resonate with my generation (1980's on).
This film is the third in what I see as a three part series (the first
two being Elephant and Last Days). All three surprisingly depict the
attitude of the contemporary youth in a way that no other films have
been able to do. I say surprisingly because it strikes me as odd that
Van Sant would be able to so accurately capture the thoughts, feelings
and attitudes of such a misunderstood generation. So often, parents of
these children say such things as, "we did that when we were your age,"
or, "I can relate to what you are going through," but what these
parents often fail to recognize is that although the things we
encounter may be similar the times as Bob Dylan would say, "are a
changin'." To capture the particular mindset of the youth of today is a
feat in itself, but to do so and provide entertainment as well deserves
at least a brief look.
The film Paranoid Park itself seems to capture this way of thinking better than the previous two films. What starts as a simple rant about the modern youth becomes so much more. At first, you might find yourself thinking that the movie is somber,or perhaps unrealistic as the circumstances of the action are strange, but as you continue watching it the message that is trying to be conveyed becomes clear. This could have been you. This could have been me. It could have been you child, or the kid down the street. The common themes of teen flicks of drugs, sex, and rock and roll are pushed aside to highlight the internal strife of the protagonist. The "emo" music and distinctive fashion of this generational subculture seem all too real, and in the end you are left feeling as the main character does: silent and alone. Is this a movie about hope? I'm not sure. What I am sure about is that it deserves a chance. Paranoid Park could best be described as a much needed break from mainstream cinema, but more important, a film that might just make you think.
Gus Van Sant's latest films have been some of the most idiosyncratic
not just of his career but of independent film in America since 2000.
He's jumped ship, momentarily, from the Hollywood machine (To Die For,
Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester) and made films like Gerry,
Elephant and Last Days as sort of poetic essays on film (yes, very
pretentious, but they are poetic at least). His latest, Paranoid Park,
at least could be called as something more of a story-driven narrative
than any of the others, but it's still with a lyrical beat, driven by a
mix-and-match of 8mm skateboarding footage and the malaise of a teen
caught in that very recognizable, almost atypical state of mind at that
age. Only here, it's probably more of a quiet, detached malaise that
has within it a soul that is being sort of killed away piece by piece
by the secret he holds.
The teen is Alex (first timer Gabe Nevins), who was mostly responsible for the (very) grisly death of a security guard while he and a not-quite acquaintance from Paranoid Park's skating scene were riding carelessly along a slow-moving train. He shut it out of his mind, or tried to, until a police officer examining the case brought in photos of the deceased in a Q & A with all of the skaters at high school. This, pretty much, is the bedrock of the story, but aside from this it's the 'something' that is the story. The rest of the film shows this kid in a state of peril, but not of the sort that makes us think this is an immediate existential crisis. He feigns interest in a girlfriend (ditzy Jennifer played by Taylor Momsen), hangs out with his skater friends like Jared (also first-timer Jake Miller), and writes in a journal with a narration that's a mix of detached Travis Bickle and, well, awkward teen.
What interested me was a mood I found Van Sant, intentionally or otherwise, was working with. I kept thinking back to a work like Camus's the Stranger, which had its 'hero' Mersault as a figure who wasn't exactly passionate and just a few heart beats above dead fish. There's something in this kids eyes, in his lack of reaction and in those long moments right after the train track scene as he is under the shower faucet in slow-motion. Actually, there's a lot of slow-motion, sometimes of walking, or ruminating, and as it builds with the narration and the mix of stark and experimental cinematography from the great Christopher Doyle (great at, you know, these kinds of art-house films), as part of Van Sant's method of character study.
Alex's inability to connect, with friends, parents, authority figures, even his own impulse to release his inner thoughts, however brief and to the point ("I'm not much of a creative writer," Alex admits), is what is meant to absorb the viewer into Paranoid Park. For Van Sant, no matter what the excesses of the light touches of music (mostly from Nino Rota and Elliot Smith), or the slow-motion skateboarding (which I could go either way on as a casual admirer of the sport), or the bits that seem to have not much to do with anything aside from following a character in the midst of some thought (i.e. Alex on an escalator), it works as a feat of art for expressing its character, in the relatively short running time, like no other filmmaker would. It's somewhat challenging, but one that's worth taking for glimpses into a state of mind akin to the sobering existential and, more startling, the lack-of-coming-of-age to the character. 8.5/10
I was fortunate enough to attend a cast and crew screening of Gus Van
Sant's latest film, Paranoid Park. Having missed Last Days, Gerry, and
seeing only bits and pieces of Elephant, I didn't really know what to
expect as he sheepishly greeted the crowd, said his thank you's, and
let the film roll. With all the criticism, both for and against these
recent films, I prepared myself for meaningless long shots of people
walking, eating, and various other moments that would quickly find
their way to most editor's cutting room floors. Would I be held hostage
by a director too much in love with his own shots, or witness the work
of a director who could, at this point in his career, easily coast --
yet continues to redefine himself? Thankfully, it was the latter.
Paranoid Park is easily one of my favorite films of the year, second only to First Snow. Both share the same kind of slow, dreamy reverie I think mainstream audiences are put off by. Both are threaded by haunting scores that are inseparable from the film as a whole. The film feels like music on its own.
Park's story is about the death of a security guard in Portland's industrial district, very close to an infamous skate park named Paranoid Park. The film was shot entirely in Portland Oregon. Much like Van Sant's, Drug Store Cowboy, the director treats the various locales in Portland as a second character, showcasing the unique flavor of the city without coming across as a film commissioned by the Oregon tourist board.
The young lead in the film, Gabe Nevins, in what is perhaps his debut film role, has the uneasy task of carrying the film. He plays Alex, a shy skater type who has little interest in his parents, school, or his pretty girlfriend. His performance is commendable. In a role that could have come across as the typical Skater Boy we've all seen 100 times before, he comes off naturally, as a nervous boy who's uncomfortable in his own skin; A boy gripped by an internal struggle too personal to share with anyone. The film is ultimately about this struggle. His narration might strike many viewers as stoic and forced. I would have to disagree. I saw it as the voice of a boy nervously scribbling away at his journal mistakes and all. The entire film has that raw type of quality.
While pleased with Nevins' performance, I can't say the same for two of the young female actresses in the film. Taylor Momsen, who plays Alex's girlfriend is awful. In contrast to Nevins' natural performance, Momsen comes off like a pretty teenager who's nervous about being watched. I've seen better acting at middle school dance recitals. In a long scene shared by the two, we hear nothing but music, this seemed less like an artistic decision and more like a creative way to tune out her distracting acting. Lauren McKinney, as Alex's friend, shows us an equally wooden performance.
The most impressive quality of Paranoid Park is the gorgeous cinematography by Christopher Doyle and Kathy Li. There is a rich, warm almost vintage quality to the film. Mixing what looked like various stocks of Super 8, digital video, and 35 MM film, each location is bathed in its own outward charm. In a scene where Alex sits on the beach, the aperture flicks forward and backwards, letting light jerk around the lens. It fits the mood of the scene perfectly, like orchestral scratches on an old LP.
Overall, Paranoid Park is like a gorgeous and melancholy folk song. With my head still swirling from summer block busters like Transformers and Harry Potter, it was refreshing to watch a film with breathing room. Whether the many dreamlike shots are the result of a director (who edits his own film) unwilling to cut away from his favorite shots, or of an orchestrated effort to thread the film like a song and let the narrative drift in and out, I am in love with his effort and look forward to dreaming with him more.
Yours in Service, Robert Plastorm
This is another fine film by Gus Van Sant which sadly seems to have
overlooked by most cinemas and cinema-goers where I live. I attended
one of three screenings at an almost-deserted local art-house cinema in
Southampton. For me, however, this short, low-key film left a
The non-narrative structure of the film means that the action on screen cuts back and forth in time around a central incident in which Alex, played by Gabe Nevins, causes the death of a security guard on a train track in Portland, Oregon, where the film is set. This shocking event is unveiled, appropriately enough, in the middle of the film. From very early it is more or less obvious what trouble Alex is in, so there is little sense of mystery about the film's events. However the non-narrative sequencing does allow for questions to float to the surface before explanations and elaborations begin to crop up later in the film, allowing the viewer to make connections and draw some conclusions for themselves. I quite enjoy this approach to story-telling although it does seem to be increasingly common (see Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, Memento, et al).
The cast, apparently consisting of local teenagers with little background in acting, turn in some fine performances, especially Gabe Nevins in the central role of Alex. Scenes in the film are interspersed with camcorder footage of teenagers skateboarding around Oregon, which is a novel touch and in keeping with the feel of Van Sant's films, which are realistic but more dreamlike than gritty.
A special mention should go to the soundtrack in Paranoid Park, which is one of the strongest features of this film. The music ranges from rock (the Revolts) through folk (Elliott Smith) to classical (Beethoven) and musique concrete (Robert Normandeau). My favourite use of music in the film is in the opening shots of skateboarders in the skate park (from which the film's title is taken). Warm electronic tones and burblings envelope a continuous slow-motion camera shot of skateboarders as they rove around the the curves and angles of the park and the effect is really quite magical. (Having said that, I think there are one too many slow-motion shots later in this film which seem somewhat suspicious when the running time is less than 90 minutes...)
Van Sant's "Paranoid Park" could be described easily as nothing more
than putting Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment" into motion. Of course
the background is different as we're having the moral struggle put in
youth and skate environment. As the plot twists, the director focuses
on the realism of the main character's's struggle. This is why the
movie definitely scores as 9 out of 10. Not because of the 'moral
message' which was the main 'goal' of Dostoevsky's book, but he uses
all of available artistic and directing methods to picture something
that is not distant for the viewer. It is more like picturing the
struggles that recently became part of human nature.
Main character, although he's a teenager, is already wasted and is having enough of his life. Sick and tired, doesn't give much attention about his girlfriend, sexual initiation, family and friends as the 'higher levels' of morality and humanity became his main issues after his accident.
I think that the movie should be considered more as a inner mirror of struggles and hard issues that became a part of our everyday life. Gus Van Sant pictured it perfectly. 9/10. Nothing else to add.
After turning his back on the mainstream 6 years ago with his striking
yet spurned two-man tale, Gerry, acclaimed writer/director Gus Van Sant
delivers once more in refined style with his own eccentric yet poignant
spin on the teen' movie genre.
Adapted from Blake Nelson's best selling novel and shot masterfully in Van Sant's hometown of Portland, Paranoid Park hinges on an act of acute violence. Alex (Gabe Nevins) is a confused schoolboy skater whose life hits the bricks following his role in the death of a local security guard. The film itself, then, is largely told from Alex's perspective as he goes back and forth in his mind and notebook in an attempt to vindicate his tainted conscious and make sense of why and how things happened the way they did.
With the chronology of the omniscient narrative skewed and certain scenes misleading, Paranoid Park establishes a near perfect balance between form and content. The naivety and confusion stirring behind Nevins' infantile eyes are both complimented and mirrored by the structure of the plot. In his feature debut, Nevins gives a modest performance of troubled teen' in whom thoughts of; family, divorce, sex, skating, school and murder suffer a succession of high-speed collisions. At the age of just 15, Nevins' not only performs with a quality beyond his tender years and experience, but provides a leading performance that is as convincing as it is impressive.
As for Van Sant, his tight film-making skills are exhibited throughout in what has to be considered as an experimental picture wherein an uncanny blend of hand-held, slow-mo' scenic inter-cuts, out-of-sync shots and mellow off-screen alternative music carve a moody yet nonchalant atmosphere that at times suggests that this is an independent crime-mystery drama, at others: a tale of boy becomes man. Whatever it is, it brings to mind the likes of Memento and Brick. Hence, it is simply brilliant. Mystifying, moving and quite majestic. Paranoid Park is one of this year's most haunting and interesting features that ranks amidst Van Sant's finest work to date. Good Will Hunting? Not quite. But for such a question to prompt a pause for thought says a lot. See this.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Alex, a teenage skateboarder, accidentally kills a security guard in
the vicinity of Paranoid Park, a skate grounds on the outskirts of
Portland. Rather than report the incident to the police, Alex decides
to say nothing.
This thin plot is stretched for an hour and seventeen minutes, as Gus Van Sant's camera following his amateur actors over the course of a couple of days. Many viewers will be left bored, and find the story thin and undramatic, but I enjoyed it.
Gus Van Sant's intentions, I think, are to treat skateboarding as a form of escapism. Like drugs, alcohol or even film, skateboarding is Alex's way of escaping his dysfunctional family and depressing life. The boys at Paranoid Park are his kindred spirits. He feels comfortable around them. They all understand his pain. As such, Van Sant tries to portray skateboarding as a dreamy, slow, sort of ethereal trance. He wants us to know that skateboarding is like being lost in drugs, alcohol or even a good piece of literature. This is how Alex escapes the world.
Van Sant's second point is that all the problems in the film are simply due to a lack of communication. The plot itself is merely a metaphor for this theme. Alex feels troubled and trapped simply because he doesn't talk about the crime he committed. Likewise, he's forced into having sex with his girlfriend because he lets her do all the talking and he has problems with his parents because he never opens up to them. His parents themselves have marital problems because they fail to meaningfully communicate. Throughout the film, character's constantly misunderstand one another, or simply lie to avoid having to talk about something uncomfortable. Not only do they fail to communicate, but they fail to properly articulate their feelings and pain.
Alex then meets Macy, that compassionate female character who seems to pop up in all of Van Sant's "death films". Right away, she senses that there is something wrong with him. She sees the pain in Alex and recommends that he write his troubles down to get his problems off his chest. Alex does this (communicates to the audience) and the film ends.
The film has several flaws. Firstly, the way Gus Van Sant portrays skateboarding (a drug like daze) doesn't work. It just feels cheap. Secondly, his idea of Alex's confessional letter being the film fabric itself, feels half thought out. Alex writes his letter bit by bit, and the film takes this fractured approach. "Elephant" was structured in a similar way, but felt more confident. Thirdly, the story is too thin. The film is only an hour and seventeen minutes long, and yet at least ten minutes of the film feels like pointless padding.
Still, there's a lot of strong stuff here. Like "Gerry", "Last Days" and "Elephant", Van Sant uses amateur actors, which lends the film an interesting edge. Also his cinematography (by long time Wong Kar Wai cinematographer Chris Doyle) is always interesting.
Despite it's failures, "Paranoid Park" is a great little morality tale. Gus Van Sant seems to have tapped into the whole teenage-angst thing. His characters are all lost, trapped in an uncaring, unforgiving modern world, their parents distant and literally out of focus. They have nobody to turn to. Nobody to talk to. Nobody to console them.
And like Paul Newman says at the end of "Cool Hand Luke", all these problems are simply due to man's failure to meaningfully communicate. Our failure to properly empathise and our inability to ever know what's going on in another person's head. We're all trapped in our own little boxes, with our own little problems, and rather than reach out and share our pain, we bottle it up, thinking we're all alone. Gus Van Sant wants us to know that by sharing out problems and by helping one another, we'd have a lot less to worry and a lot less to be guilty of.
7.9/10 - A heavily flawed but well meaning film, made by an honest artist.
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